Purveyor of Damn Fine Creative & User Experiences, et al.



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Unicorn, by Archigraf

In previous posts, I’ve wrung my hands a slight bit worrying about the “everybody’s a designer” attitude that seems to be gaining momentum. By and large the message being sent by the push toward “Design Thinking” has been, “Anyone can do it.” A comment Peter Hall wrote in his article Make/Do resonated with me - “Designers willing to take risks… will be the impetus for this open, collaborative work, empowering amateurs to become active contributors and co-authors”. It resonates because it reinforces my view that design is a support service. Sometimes, we use our skills as a vehicle to enable and facilitate.

As a User Experience designer, I consider my primary function to perform in a support capacity alongside visual designers and developers - I fill the gap between tech and aesthetics by grappling with process, behaviors and the way people and systems function,  the hierarchy of information display, and in the absence of client-provided use cases, imagine my own so that I can consider every detail of an experience from different angles, and account for it in my designs. Ultimately, I ensure all the information is present, structured, and styled appropriately so the designers can iterate on the idea, and make something functional into something that is also aesthetically successful.
As a visual designer in the Digital Dawn, when the internet came of age, but before the design discipline realized a need for new specializations like User Experience design and Information Architecture, my job was quite different - and in many ways, was becoming impossibly complex. Satisfying all these new expectations to produce additional deliverables in the form use cases, user flows, wires, and technical specifications, alongside our typical deliverables - concepts, at least two distinct visual directions with several comps of key components, and pixel-perfect mechanicals that were always inevitably frankensteined by clients - made for some very, very long hours, and after 12 years, at least one very burned-out designer.

It’s true - there really are designers who can do it all, and when this kind of person puts their mind to something, WOW. Watch out. Anything can happen.  In the long run, while I think this “I can do it all mentality” has produced some pretty incredible work, I’m not sure it’s the right direction for the discipline as a whole to pursue. Here’s why:

It seems that, similar to back in the early otts, when every dot com seemed to be looking for a designer who could code (and vice versa), the industry learned that folks who have that kind of ability to switch hit between two diverse skillsets are RARE - and even more rare for someone do both WELL. I felt like, at a certain point in the late 2000s / early 2010s, employers realized that to make a really solid product, they needed to hire people who are extremely gifted at, focused on, and specialized in a thing, instead of someone who is unfocused and/or mediocre at both. In the scenario where the latter kind of hire is made, at some point, the designer may suffer being over-worked, the product may suffer, and the discipline suffers when otherwise employable designers are passed over for not having a skill set that’s not central to the discipline.

History has a way of repeating itself, of course.  Multi-talented folks certainly exist - we call them unicorns, in the industry - though not in the numbers one would expect given the number of job reqs seeking candidates who are strong at all the things. Every week I see new jobs posted seeking a UX “ninja” who can also design and write code and prototype and do front end dev… It’s a lot to ask from one person - how many people can truly say they have spent years developing that kind of diverse skill set? In some respects I suppose that I *could* be that kind of unicorn, but though I can write HTML and CSS, and yes I’m learning java yadda yadda, I never would quite feel confident saying I can code, given some of the badass devs I’ve worked alongside over the years. 

Here’s my conundrum: I’ve just begun a freelance contract role with a company where I will be doing UX, prototyping, and visual design - and though I enjoy the mix of work, I struggle at a micro level as I question whether I am truly able to do both well. Simply stated - Great work isn’t done in a vacuum. my philosophy generally lies in the “the more brains on a project, the better” realm - how do I combat being too myopic with the way I interpret my own wires and translate them to visual executions? If I am successful at one task, but not as successful with the other, will it reflect poorly on my legacy as a designer? Could this broad focus hinder my potential for growth? 

On the other hand, at a macro level, I also have somewhat of an ethical concern. If am successful at both tasks, does that mean I’ve contributed to a marketplace with increasingly unrealistic expectations? Or does this mean I have a competitive edge? Ramia Maze said “interaction design doesn’t yet have the substantial or established intellectual foundations that could be a basis for taking a stance towards ethical and polical issues, toward issues of ideology.” When I read this, my mind first went back in time to when the AIGA took a position against spec work. The issue with spec work is, though it benefits companies who profit from “free” work, and benefits a few individual designers who participate and “win” - it is a bad deal for the profession as a whole because it devalues our work, eliminates client engagement, and doesn’t compensate a large group of participants for their time, skill and talent. I’m not sure I can agree with Ramia - I think we are at a point that I should be thinking about the ethical implications of my decisions as a designer. Should I draw a parallel between people like myself, who take on multiple assignments spanning a variety of design specializations, in lieu of helping clients realize that this skill set is uncommon and they should stop chasing unicorns? In the end, is it hurting the profession in a similar way to the spec-work issue? 

I’m curious to hear your perspective. 

"Design Thinking” and the Proverbial Mockingbird

In my last thought exercise You Are An Architect, I Am A Designer (Blurred Lines), I used the example of the fast-casual dining concept and its various contributing roles and iterations to ask what it means to be a designer, and by way of that question, to frame a discussion about how we delineate ownership versus appropriation of the design process. I’d like to continue this line of thought and consider how the recent buzz around the term “Design Thinking” further blurs the lines between ownership and appropriation.

Business leaders like Tim Brown of IDEO, one of the worlds foremost design consultancies, are adamant about convincing the business world that the design process is more than aesthetics (duh, of course it is), and that it can be appropriated to infuse an organization with creativity and revolutionize business through innovation, even if the businesses’ primary function or focus is not design.

Can it? Can it be done well? Should it? Should we leave the designing to the designers?

Mockingbirds Collages, by Brandy Nicks

In as much as we can call anyone who uses the scientific method a scientist, we can call anyone who uses design methodologies a designer. However, as the collective consciousness is raised about the importance of design, and academics and professionals of all kinds are encouraged to adopt the practice of “design thinking”, does that mean anybody can be a designer? Are there hallmarks of a “true” designer that distinguish the design discipline from any other discipline that appropriates the practice of “design thinking”? Will design’s new standard inevitably become multi disciplinarian? 

The answer is yes, more or less. So what does this mean for the future of the design discipline?

Design Is More Than An Outcome: It Is A Sum of Its Parts
Let’s start with a definition for this complex, multi-faceted discipline. Design is a method or process employed to produce or facilitate nonverbal communication that in turn, is meant to fulfill a particular purpose or goal, and whose success is dependent upon consumer, culture, and context. Sometimes function is more important than form - for example a website like amazon that works exceedingly well but that may not be visually appealing, while at other times, as in the case of product or fashion design, form may equal to, or even override function. 

Poignant in the consideration of design success and failure is to separate “personal taste or preference” from “objective judgements”. (http://char.txa.cornell.edu/language/introlan.htmI can’t help but think about the uproar Cranbrook students caused in 1992 when they produced and distributed Output. It seems to me that the students were re-introducing the question, “What is design,” and opening a forum to discuss expanding what was then, perhaps a narrow definition closely policed by the old modernist guard of utopian design. In this instance, the product itself was an instrument used to trigger the process of reform - it inspired critical thinking, which in turn sparked a dialogue, ultimately resulting in an expanded definition of design (definitiely read this article - wow, an excellent retrospective interview with Heller - I like him a lot more after reading it :) ). 

The avant garde of design are those practitioners and intellectuals who, like the students at Cranbrook, explore pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm, who scope out the terrain ahead and plot the course for the advancement of the discipline - designers who are coming up with “new working methods, new insights into culture, and enlightened making.” (Volume: Writings on Graphic Design, Music, Art, and Culture, Adversarial thoughts, p26) Today, the onset of relatively new outgrowths of the design discipline such as user experience, customer experience, and social innovation are performing a function similar to Output - they are making us think critically about our discipline once again, affecting design discourse and expanding its definition.

Design as Meta-Discipline
Design is typically cross-disciplinary by nature because the methodologies of design are often employed in order to achieve business goals or advance other kinds of social, political, and/or economic objectives. It may seem paradoxical to propose that design could be done for the sake of design, but in the sense that design must have a goal, audience, and context - design can also be self serving if it means improving the discipline’s methods, processes. As we look toward the future and see folks like Tim Brown evangelizing the importance of embedding design across organizations beyond their marketing departments, we begin to see different manifestations of the discipline become cornerstones of excellence in areas like Customer Service, Business Development, Product Development, Transport, Shipment & Logistics, et al.

In the end, the term “design thinking” is just a clever way to commodify the design discipline. It’s misleading in a sense, because it leads non-design focused businesses to believe that design is a simple DIY “tool kit” they can download and install and voila! Revolution! Embedding design thinking across organizations that don’t typically focus on design might be quite an undertaking when it comes to cultural change, but it will not be taking anyone’s job away, though. Quite the opposite.  In the sense that “design thinking” encourages non-designers to buy into the practice of collaboration and creativity, the idea will do well to gain traction because it opens the doors for designers to step in and start a dialogue, creating opportunities for innovation and improvement where once none existed, or maybe was never considered. Maybe a more truthful message to spread would be to cultivate a culture of “design thinking”, and combine it with the idea of Intentional Design - embed a designer somewhere you think they don’t belong or where a process isn’t quite working right, and see what happens - the results might change everything.

I Am A Designer. You Are An Architect. (Blurred Lines)

In What Is This Thing Called Design Criticism - Part 1, Michael Rock made one comment that gave me pause for thought:

“The evolution of display technology has fundamentally changed the relationship between the designer, the architect, and the city.”

Initially this comment sparked some simple questions like, “What is the designer’s role?” versus “What is the architect’s role?” And the city? “Is that the product of design? Or is that supposed to denote the audience, or end user?” 

Specifically, I began thinking about the trend of Fast-Casual Dining that has evolved over the last 10 or 15 years. Conceptual formats vary from restaurant to restaurant when it comes to any given part of an experience - the display of menus, the process of ordering, payment, receiving or retrieving ones order, dining, and departure. Think about your experiences at, La Madeleine versus Quiznos. Freebirds versus Tarka. Even at the same restaurant an experience may vary between time of visit or mode of dining (delivery, takeout, dine-in).


At Chipotle, for example, on a slow day a diner might zip right through the line and burrito building process, while during a crowded lunch hour when lines are long, team members approach diners to complete ordering and payment to try and speed up the process. 

Some of these conceptual formats work quite well - others, not so much. One particularly awful format is the burger restaurant Hopdoddy. In the spirit of innovation and novelty, they’ve tried to adopt a twist on the fast casual format which simply does not work. Here’s Hopdoddy’s “novel” twist:

  1. A diner has to wait outside in line (in 100+ degree full sun temps at times), to be considered for the reservation line near the door - Acceptance is determined on restaurant capacity, party size and seating availability
  2. Once in the reservation line, a party must wait for a table to become available in order to wait in yet a third line
  3. Oh glorious third line! Where I get to place my order and pay! There will be food soon.
  4. But wait, there are more lines at the soda fountain and bar. At least at the end of all these lines a diner is guaranteed to have a seat available.
  5. OMG I’m sitting at a table - where’s my burger? Where’s my burger? Where’s my burger?

While this wacko “innovative” process solves one problem - getting through line and being unable to find a table to sit at, it creates an overly-cumbersome experience that some people actively avoid. The goal should be to solve existing pain points without creating more problems - sometimes, as this wired article points out - innovation isn’t enough. 


This example of conceptual dining formats sparked a domino effect of questions: Who comes up with these fast-casual dining concepts? An architect?  Environmental designer? Experience designer? A chef? Restauranteur? Furthermore, how do we delineate the responsibilities, for example, of an architect versus a designer? Where does one role end and another begin? 

Who owns the concept?

Who should I direct my criticism toward?

Is the outcome a living thing that evolves over time? Is it ever really final? In the case of a busy Chipotle or Hopdoddy, where there is certainly room for improvement, how do designers affect change across a potentially goliath organization?

Issues that both designers and architects deal with are strikingly parallel. It seems logical that the design practice has appropriated terms from architecture in recent years, and this alone connotes similarity between roles and responsibilities at a macro level. In the visual essay, What is Design? A Manifesto… The first point states,

“Autonomous design is at best, a myth… designers ought to embrace the discipline’s communal and contingent nature.”

Toward the end of the manifesto, point seven states, 

“At its best, design’s cultural value - as opposed to its commercial value - functions as an abundance, a resource to be shared.”

Despite obvious distinctions, there is certainly a convergence between the two fields that our disciplines may eventually need to mete out, thus underscoring the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration. How so? 


As the constructs of design output become increasingly complex, and more screens are bring added to the mix of media outlets, the role of the designer has become fragmented, specialized, and focused on not only various parts of the process, but specific outcomes which are parts of a, sometimes disjointed experience or end product. While this degree of specialization is certainly necessary, this fragmentation has caused a fatal flaw in contemporary design practice - on the whole, practitioners have lost sight of the bigger picture. [Pun intended.] 

It seems that tangential arts and disciplines are recognizing the value of the design process, including special skills and perspective a trained designer brings to the table. 

"Design plays such a crucial role because it represents the intentional crafting of a relationship between experience and audience, and is the medium through which consumers engage with the brand. Designers are becoming inventors, because they’re driving business concepts, not just visualizing others’ concepts.

John Maeda, Forrester CX Forum Day Two: Brands Need to Break Out of Old Ecosystems

Consider for a moment the emerging field of Experience Design. We are seeing roles pop up with titles such as: Information Architect, User Experience (UX) Researcher, UX Designer, Customer Experience (CX), Experience Director, Technical Architect, the list goes on. What is it about the design craft that makes it so malleable, flexible, versatile, and complementary to other disciplines? 

This will be the focus of my next blog - Beyond the Screen: A Holistic Approach to Design.

It’s kind of a big deal in the industry. The award is recognized throughout the airport industry as the highest honor an airport can earn in the public and media relations field. There are a number of categories, but Flight Deck was awarded the #1 spot for creative innovations. WOOT!

So just what is Flight Deck? The SFO Flight Deck is composed of three distinct but connected digital experiences — an interactive and real time large scale projection (you can’t miss it), six multi-touch kiosks that are rich with beautiful content, and a mobile takeaway component for those on the go. The entire experience resides in Terminal 3, but the projected visualization serves as a beacon calling all SFO guests to contribute to the global SFO travel story. Content in all three experiences encompasses the entire airport and extends its reach into the city of San Francisco and global destinations.

I just love my clients at Avenue B Development - they do beautiful work, and I get the opportunity to make some beautiful advertising for them. 

They wanted a bolder, fresher look for this year, so I went bold! I took some cues from Pantone and used the color of the year, Wild Orchid, as the inspiration for the accents.

See more of their gorgeous work on their web site, AvenueBdev.com2014 Spring/Summer edition of Austin Home Magazine will hit the stands June 1.  

Something has to change: LEAD BY EXAMPLE

I helped lead a workshop on Saturday for Girls in STEM - the purpose was to expose them to the types of work we do and encourage them to pursue careers in Science / Tech / Engineering / Math.

On the one hand, it makes total sense to get more girls into these male-dominated fields so that we can average out the playing field. Hopefully make wages more equitable. Maybe it will help us earn more respect.

On the other hand, we’ve been yammering about this a while now, and there has been little cultural progression or adaptation as more and more women DO enter these fields. As a woman in tech, I am reminded daily that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And it’s not just men’s fault.

If you’re a female who tries to display leadership, you’re called “bossy”, or told you’re not “collaborative” or a “team player”, while your male counterparts are rewarded for the same behavior.

If you’re a female who tries to address a situation head-on, you’re reprimanded for being “confrontational” while the men in the office are respected for being direct. If you try a different, softer approach, you’re probably just being “passive aggressive”.

If, by chance, a coworker perceives your display of leadership, or your very efficient, very direct communication style as negative or takes it personally, don’t you dare try to understand how they arrived at that notion, nor attempt to talk it out, lest you be accused of trying to “rationalize” your behavior and “justify / excuse” your mistakes, no matter how open you are to understanding, nor how good you think you are at owning up.

And by god, if you are a woman and *want* to enter a male dominated field, don’t bother unless you’re hot. Studies show that looks will get you hired, promoted, and paid more on average. You’ll also likely be considered smarter than you really are, as people tend to over-estimate the smarts of pretty people, while the same people underestimate the smarts of average looking folks.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I promoted my industry to a bunch of whip smart 12 and 13yr old girls. It’s not that I think we should give up on getting more girls into these fields, but I am at a loss for finding the motivation to persevere when it’s made clear at every turn that this shit isn’t going to stop, and it’s not getting any better.

Another day, another year, and more anonymous feedback where someone has yet again called a woman your choice of negative words above. And I’m not just speaking for myself, although I’ve been playing at this game for well over 15 years now, and I’ve arrived at a few conclusions. 1 - It’s exhausting. 2 - It’s unimaginably frustrating. 3 - It’s impossible to live up to arbitrarily set, unattainable double standards.


Men (and women) who aren’t making an effort to improve the climate of our workplace may not make comments about our asses in mixed company anymore, but they still, by and large, decide whether or not we have successful careers. If you want to make the workplace more hospitable towards women, then LEAD BY EXAMPLE.

Introducing Proxima Nouveau, a typeface mod based on Proxima Nova. The typeface design takes the counter-space within the lowercase a, and extends it to form a paisley shape, which becomes the basis for the entire modification. Let’s get flourish-y with it. 

Working on my next #typeface #design Ouh La La Laitue, based on beautiful, frilly leafy green lettuce #typography #mfa #txstate #gradschool

This deep connection to making positions design in a modulating role between the user and the world. By manipulating form, design reshapes that essential relationship. Form is replaced by exchange. The things we make negotiate a relationship over which we have profound control.

Michael Rock, Fuck Content (2009)

Holy Hell my new creation is delicious! Hoping it helps usher this nasty stomach bug right outta my bod & quick 🍅 Verde V8 + #probiotics = 3 handfuls #spinach • whole #celery heart + 2 sticks • handful #cilantro • 2 #limes mostly peeled • 3-4 large cloves #garlic • 2 #tomatillos • 1.5 pints Kumato #tomatoes (unfiltered) • 1/2 jalapeño #juicing #cleansing #health #diet #raw (at The Cactus Patch On Oltorf)

Type mandala in action! #gradschool #txstate #mfa #typography #design (at The Cactus Patch On Oltorf)

Lazerhawk - Skull and Shark

Badass.  Lazerhawk’s sound is somewhat reminiscient of Ghostland Observatory sans vocals.  He bills himself as Outrun Electro, Synthwave and Chillwave in dedication to the 1980s.  Read more about him here: Lazerhawk on Rosso Corsa

Give the new record (released 10.24.2013) a listen on Bandcamp: Skull and Shark by Lazerhawk

No rest for the wicked. #gradschool #txstate #MFA (at The Cactus Patch On Oltorf)

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